University Students’ Reflections on Representations in Genetics and Stereochemistry Revealed by a Focus Group Approach
Genetics and organic chemistry are areas of science that students regard as difficult to learn. Part of this difficulty is derived from the disciplines having representations as part of their discourses. In order to optimally support students’ meaning-making, teachers need to use representations to structure the meaning-making experience in thoughtful ways that consider the variation in students’ prior knowledge. Using a focus group setting, we explored 43 university students’ reasoning on representations in introductory chemistry and genetics courses. Our analysis of eight focus group discussions revealed how students can construct somewhat bewildered relations with disciplinary-specific representations. The students stated that they preferred familiar representations, but without asserting the meaning-making affordances of those representations. Also, the students were highly aware of the affordances of certain representations, but nonetheless chose not to use those representations in their problem solving. We suggest that an effective representation is one that, to some degree, is familiar to the students, but at the same time is challenging and not too closely related to “the usual one”. The focus group discussions led the students to become more aware of their own and others ways of interpreting different representations. Furthermore, feedback from the students’ focus group discussions enhanced the teachers’ awareness of the students’ prior knowledge and limitations in students’ representational literacy. Consequently, we posit that a focus group setting can be used in a university context to promote both student meaning-making and teacher professional development in a fruitful way.
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